Master of the cocked eyebrow and the irony-spiked pen, Jane Austen doesn't seem the sort to have suffered fools silently. What would she think, then, of the creators of Bridget Jones, Bride and Prejudice, and now the most recent Pride and Prejudice? How would she react upon seeing her keen takes on class and gender treated as feel-good feminist frosting on the inevitable wedding cake? Trenchant of tongue, patron saint of spinster snark -- what would Jane do?
Hollywood has been quick to defang Austen, turning her into an old-biddy wit. She did write perfect plots -- effortlessly paced, with enough external twists to mirror inner turmoil and effect internal transformation in her characters. But her narrative conventions were inseparable from her societal analysis -- and that's where her writing gains so much of its power, from the friction between her fairy-tale plotting and her critiques of her society.
Hollywood will have just the fairy tales, please. With the crackling banter and the tidily surmountable challenges already built in, Austen's novels provide perfect ready-made screenplays. As for her troublesome, satiric views, they are readily molded into a merely sassy heroine.
Ever on the alert, screenwriters cawed and flapped over en masse like vultures settling on her work. In the ‘90s, she was cinematic gold -- Emma, Sense and Sensibility, and Clueless were critical and audience favorites. In this decade, however, with the formulaic Bridget Jones, the aggressively horrible Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason and Bride and Prejudice (save for that snake-dance scene -- huzzah, Meghna Kothari, you crazy charmer!), and now the pointless Pride and Prejudice, perhaps screenwriters should stop picking at Jane and let her rest in peace.
Austen remakes provide a consistent means to showcase an actress' talent. In the case of this most recent film, it's a double billing -- Keira Knightley and her wicked underbite. Her overreliance on wielding those British orthodontics aside, Knightley makes a surprisingly charming Elizabeth Bennet -- a bit more youthful tomboy than the usual, but spry and light-footed, with big Bambi eyes to convey the melty heart behind the tarty tongue.
She's got much to be tart about, of course -- she's the second in a downwardly mobile brood of five girls, daughter to a woman hell-bent on matrimonial pimpery. Mrs. Bennet is her usual insufferable self -- a remake's feministconvictions can readily be gauged from its treatment of this character. In this version, as in others, there's little humanity bestowed upon her. In one scene early in the film, the camera lights upon a waddling pig, gazes with rapture upon his enormous balls, and then cuts, most unkindly, to the sweaty face of the desperately husband-seeking Mrs. Bennet.
Director Joe Wright hurriedly shifts to something more suitable in a period piece -- one can almost see him muttering, "Dance balls, not pig balls," so fervently does he switch tacks. To make up for his earthy aberration, Wright unleashes the usual conventions with extra zeal: the actors hopping in circles, the clasping hands, the shrieking female gaiety, the squealy corset-fitting, the girls palpitating with nubile desire and giggling under the bedcovers as they talk about the balls later.
Elizabeth doesn't have much to squeal about -- Wright having regained his composure, there are no mammalian balls about, particularly not those of her love interest. Mr. Darcy is the new rich man in town, a regular dourpuss who skulks around, glowers, and most damningly, hates dancing. In typical romantic-comedy fashion, it's loathe at first sight for Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, complete with the cute banter that reassures the audience that the pair is meant to be together.
As clear-sighted as she was, Austen never could write a male lead who felt like anything more than a Mr. Right checklist (with a crabby veneer, perhaps). Matthew McFadyen actually does some nice work with the limited material, the whole tender-behind-a-crumbling-façade thing. His interactions with Knightley can generate real feeling -- they storm at each other, then she brings out the underbite like some sort of peace offering and he brings out his stammering goodness like a good Brit boy, so it's a fair barter. Donald Sutherland as Mr. Bennet also shares a moving scene with Knightley, showing the trembly-jowled love and loneliness behind his absently affectionate demeanor.
Sadly, Wright can't content himself with his actors' fine work, or with the rich social ironies in Austen's novel. When he isn't pornishly focusing on period-piece details, he's inflating the film to wuthering heights. He has infused his movie with nearly gothic elements -- a brooding Darcy, Elizabeth standing on a bluff, and tempestuous, howling dialogue -- making Pride seem both irrelevant and overdone, a lumbering Brontosaurus.
It's cinematic laziness, the garish period detail, the swirl of Sturm und Drang, a laziness that is matched by a sort of underplaying when Wright resorts to shorthand to convey key character traits. Elizabeth's pretentious potential suitor Mr. Collins is not much more than a toad in a breech coat; we're meant to see Elizabeth's bookish intelligence by the way she reads while walking in a field. Oh, please -- what sensible English girl would risk falling into a cowpat?
Austen was too smart for that, certainly, but also too attached to a clean and tidy ending. She wanted to critique the cake and eat it, too -- to allow her characters' strong-willed assessments of their world, their grappling with self-knowledge, and their secret search for genuine happiness to be rewarded in full measure. For all her satiric prowess and her unerring eye for societal foibles, Austen couldn't deny her characters a blissful resolution. Neither can we, it seems -- Austen's films provide a way to exorcise media-hyped fears that having a brain and fighting for self-understanding or worldly wisdom might make a girl less of a good catch. It's a pity, however, that the balance in this film and others -- but hopefully not in real life -- has been shifted so far from the dynamic tensions that make Austen's prose compelling … and that the rush to turn Elizabeth Bennet into Mrs. Darcy has made her a good deal less daring in the end.
Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent.
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